Not our finest hour

Yesterday was not journalism’s finest moment.

The coverage of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School was adequate at its best and at its worst indicative of the worst of both the producers and consumers of American journalism.

I watched and read the coverage not as a journalist or journalism professor, but as a concerned citizen. And only now – after the passage of some time and a chance to digest things – do I want to say a thing or two.

I hope my students read this: There is no shame – whatever your medium – as a journalist to say, “We don’t have all the facts yet. Here is what we know and can confirm. We will get you more as that information becomes available and verifiable.” Being first means nothing when you are wrong. Don’t be the guy that wrote “Dewey defeats Truman,” especially when there are dead children involved.

What do I mean? Glad you asked. A Kansas City Star story details how the shooter’s brother was initially identified by media outlets as the one who shot up the school. Ryan Lanza was in New York working and riding a bus at the time of the shooting and in the aftermath. Oh, yeah. And he was desperately trying to tell the world that it wasn’t him.

True, according to the story in The Star, a “mistaken” law enforcement officer (and an anonymous one) told the Associated Press it was Ryan Lanza. It isn’t often I get to take the AP back to freshman journalism, but I will here. If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.

A little confirmation would have gone a long way.

But the Associated Press wasn’t the worst of it. The Courant in Hartford, CONNECTICUT, had a banner ad on its website (and a smaller square ad next to it) for guns. Right next to the story about the school massacre. True, the ad was probably a self-generating one in a rotation online. But someone should have caught it and thought the wiser.

They weren’t alone.

The Rock Hill (S.C.) Herald print edition ran a quarter-page Christmas gun sale ad next to the story of the shooting after the jump from page A1.

In an apology, the paper’s editor said this:

“Multiple editors worked on the page and should have noticed the problem. We all made a terrible mistake, and for that I apologize.”

For more than a decade, every journalism student studying print design has read Tim Harrower’s “Newspaper Designer’s Handbook.” Harrower made bad photos a newsroom joke – Execution at Dawn, Guy at his Desk, Me and my Prop – and he also warned about bad juxtapositions.  When this happens it is at best humorous. When it happened today it was unforgivable.

As with most mass death stories, the body count reports kept changing. That is understandable. What wasn’t understandable was the outrageous, talk-radio like speculation I was hearing from major NEWS outlets. The local police would repeatedly tell the cameras what they could. And the commentators would then take those limited facts and extrapolate and speculate.

The media covering this story give us this because we demand it. And in fairness to them, the fact that their coverage makes these deranged killers celebrities is because we crave that. Until the United States stops being a reality-show, cult-of-personality society, we will get this from the media and the news outlets we follow. They don’t get a “pass” from me, but we all bear some of the responsibility for the product they produce.

By the end of the day, I couldn’t watch the news or listen to news radio anymore. Not because of my sadness, but because I was — more often than not — ashamed of my journalism brethren.

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One Response to Not our finest hour

  1. Bill Benson says:

    I am not going to be so harsh on the media, possibly more than most you should understand the fluidity of the situation and the almost overwhelming amount of new information coming in. What was usual to me is seeing how many reporters were so visibly emotionally affected and how they struggled to keep composure, not as dramatic of course as Herb Morrison with the Hindenberg but still very apparent. For this I extend them some amount of grace because it must have been an almost impossibly difficult story to cover and stretches our capacity as human beings.

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